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Drugs Add Years of Life

Big gainer: persons with cardiovascular diseases.

The good news for many Americans is that persons with diseases treatable by drugs, such as stomach ulcers and hypertension, are living longer. The death rate from these diseases has plunged thanks to the introduction of beta-blockers, proton pump inhibitors, and other drugs. A recent study in JAMA found that nonsmokers who comply with their drug therapy and who thereby maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels can add 6 to 9 years to their lives. As the chart shows, the death rates from rheumatic fever and heart disease, atherosclerosis, stomach ulcers, ischemic heart disease and emphysema have significantly decreased between 1965.

Breakthrough Drugs

Breakthrough medications and vaccines have had a tremendous impact on longevity in the past 65 years. First came the anti-infective drugs, such as sulfa in 1935, that set the stage for the development of penicillin. The years between 1938 and 1953 are heralded as the “Age of Antibiotics?because of the large number of anti-infective agents introduced. Vaccines then followed as the major force in eradicating deaths from diphtheria, syphilis, whooping cough, polio, and measles. Since 1920, the combined death rate from the flu and pneumonia has been reduced by 85%.

Recent Advances

New discoveries in genetics are leading to advances in therapies for cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer. In 1997, the death rate from AIDS dropped by nearly half, the biggest single-year decline in history for a major cause of death. These advances are coming in time to prevent a major “epidemic?in disease as the Baby Boom population ages. Demographic trends indicate that more than 50 million Americans past age 65 will be at risk for various degenerative diseases by 2050. But the fact is that today Americans can expect to live more than 76 years. In 1920 life expectancy at birth was 54 years. For every 5 years since 1965, an additional year has been added to life expect

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